Egyptians jubilant as a post-Mubarak era dawns

2011-02-12 08:18

Cairo – Egyptians woke to a new dawn today after 30 years of

autocratic rule under Hosni Mubarak.

As the muezzin’s call to prayer reverberated across Cairo, the

sound of horns honking in jubilation grew louder after a night in which millions

celebrated the fall of the former president.

“The people overthrow the regime”, “The Revolution of the youths

forced Mubarak to leave”, said front-page headlines in the semi-official

al-Ahram newspaper.

A wave of people power has roared across the biggest Arab nation

just four weeks after Tunisians toppled their own ageing strongman. Now, across

the Middle East and beyond, autocratic rulers are calculating their own chances

of survival.

“The January 25 Revolution won. Mubarak steps out and the army

rules,” official newspaper Al-Gomhuria said.

Eighteen days of rallies on Cairo’s Tahrir, or Liberation, Square,

which involved police assaults and a last-ditch charge by hardliners on camels,

brought unlikely success.

“We are finally going to get a government we choose,” said

29-year-old call centre worker Rasha Abu Omar. “Perhaps we will finally get to

have the better country we always dreamed of.”

Hours after word flashed out that Mubarak was stepping down and

handing over to the army, it was not just Tahrir Square but, it seemed, every

street and neighbourhood in Cairo, Alexandria, and cities and towns across the

country that were packed full.

Through the night, fireworks cracked, cars honked under swathes of

red, white and black Egyptian flags, people hoisted their children above their

heads. Some took souvenir snaps with smiling soldiers on their tanks on city

streets.

All laughed and embraced in the hope of a new era.

Infectious people power
Journalists long used to the sullen quiet of the police states that

make up much of the Middle East felt the surging joy of the population around

them as a palpable, physical sensation.

Relayed by satellite television channels and on internet social

networking sites, the euphoria in Egypt flashed around a region where autocrats

hold sway from the Atlantic to the Gulf.

It was just eight weeks to the day since a young Tunisian vegetable

seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself alight outside a local government building

in the provincial city of Sidi Bouzid, protesting in this way at his

ill-treatment by police, and at a venal, oppressive government.

Four weeks later, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had

been forced to flee the country when his generals told him they were not

prepared to defend him against protesters.

Now Mubarak, an 82-year-old who when this year began seemed ready

to establish a new dynasty on the Nile by handing over to his businessman son,

sits impotent in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh as his generals

hold power in Cairo.

In Algiers, thousands of police in riot gear were braced for action

to stop a planned demonstration there today. Officials have banned the

opposition march, setting the stage for possible clashes.

“It’s going to be a great day for democracy in Algeria,” said

Mohsen Belabes, a spokesman for the small RCD opposition party, which is one of

the organisers of the protest.

In Bahrain, the oil-rich Gulf kingdom, officials were handing out

cash worth $2 500 (R18 181) to every family, to appease them ahead of protests

opposition groups plan for Monday.

In non-Arab Iran, leaders hailed the victory of the people over a

leader seen in Tehran as a puppet of Washington and Israel.

But the White House

said a clampdown on media coverage of the events in Egypt showed that Iran’s

Islamist rulers were “scared” of pro-democracy activists, who have said they

might renew the street protests that rocked Tehran in 2009.

“It’s broken a psychological barrier not just for North Africa but

across the Middle East.

I think you could see some contagion in terms of

protests – Morocco, perhaps Jordan, Yemen,” said Anthony Skinner of political

risk consultancy Maplecroft.

Beyond the Arab world, China, wary of any foreign upheavals that

could reflect badly on its own authoritarian controls, gave its first reaction

in the official China Daily.

“Social stability should be of overriding importance. Any political

changes will be meaningless if the country falls prey to chaos in the end,” the

English-language newspaper said.

The end, at last

Mubarak’s end was, finally, swift, coming less than a day after he

had stunned protesters by insisting he would not step down despite widespread

expectations that he was about to do so.

It remains to be seen how the army will

create democracy for the first time in a nation that traces its history back 7

000 years.

Vice-president Omar Suleiman said a military council would run the

country of 80 million for now.

The council gave few details of what it said

would be a “transitional phase” and gave no timetable for presidential or

parliamentary elections. It said it wanted to “achieve the hopes of our great

people”.

Some question the army’s appetite for democracy. Western powers,

and Israel just across the Sinai desert border, worry about the electoral

strength of Islamist groups.

In the United States, Mubarak’s long-time sponsor, President Barack

Obama, said: “The people of Egypt have spoken.”

He stressed to the US-aided

Egyptian army that “nothing less than genuine democracy” would satisfy people’s

hunger for change.

He also acknowledged: “This is not the end of Egypt’s transition.

It’s a beginning. I’m sure there will be difficult days ahead, and many

questions remain unanswered.”

Washington has pursued a sometimes meandering line since the

protests began on January 25, apparently reluctant to lose a bulwark against

militant Islam in the Middle East, but also anxious to endorse calls for

political freedom.

The end of the beginning

Behind the celebrations, there was a note of caution over how far

the armed forces under Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s veteran

defence minister, were ready to permit democracy, especially since the hitherto

banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is one of the best organised movements.

“This is just the end of the beginning,” said Jon Alterman of the

Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

“Egypt isn’t moving towards democracy; it has moved into martial

law and where it goes is now subject to debate.”

US officials familiar with the Egyptian military say Tantawi, 75,

has long seemed resistant to change.

Suleiman, a 74-year-old former spy chief, annoyed some this week by

questioning whether Egyptians were ready for democracy.

Al Arabiya television said the army would soon dismiss the Cabinet

and suspend Parliament.

The head of the Constitutional Court would join the

leadership with the military council.

The best deterrent to any attempt to maintain military rule could

be the street power of protesters who showed Mubarak they could render Egypt

ungovernable without their consent.

But as continued turmoil in Tunisia shows a month after the

overthrow of the strongman there inspired young Egyptians to act, any government

will face huge social and economic problems.


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